With a large variety of applications in scientific, military, environmental and commercial domains, these new instruments achieve performances that are typically orders of magnitude larger than the traditional passive sensors used from space.
Despite the enormous interest in this type of versatile sensing tools, the technology required to meet the measurements requirements and the reliability issues are not trivial and necessitate a major development effort proportionally to the specifications to be met. In addition to that, the space environment constraints and qualification issues add orders of magnitude in complexity, development effort and cost.
ESA at the moment has three lidar missions in Phase C/D: ADM Aeolus, the Atmospheric Dynamic Mission, a single instrument mission which uses a Doppler Wind Lidar (Aladin) for high-spatial resolution, and high accuracy tropospheric wind measurements expected to be launched within 2017; EarthCare which uses a backscattering lidar (ATLID) for cloud and aerosols measurements, expected to be launched in 2018; and Bepi Colombo that operates BELA a laser altimeter that provides absolute topographic height and position with respect to a Mercury centred co-ordinate system, expected to be launched also in 2018.
TEC-MME is currently leading the drafting and implementation of key technologies for all ESA lidar missions. The roadmap drafted by TEC-MME and agreed by member states and scientific community in 2010 identified 3 high criticality/urgent aims, as well as 30 short/medium and long term technology requirements. Out of the total 34 objectives, currently (Q4 2016) 24 have been pursued, indicating the early and proper identification of the technological needs like the development of non-linear laser crystals for frequency conversion or the development of the MILA (Miniaturized Imaging Laser Altimeter) a compact imaging altimeter for the future ESA mission providing a support for the global navigation system in the approach and landing of flying spacecrafts.